Sun | Jun 24, 2018

Wishing you a merry Ethiopian Christmas

Published:Monday | January 4, 2016 | 12:00 AMJanelle Oswald
A depiction of King Lalibela.
Angels on ceiling of a Gondar church. Many churches have similar paintings.
Dig into some authentic Ethiopian 'doro wat' this season.
Ethiopia, the water tower of Africa.
Scenes from a traditional Ethiopian Christmas.
An Ethiopian priest.

Not long after the festive cheers from followers of the Gregorian calendar finish rejoicing Christmas and New Year, the energetic horns of east Africa especially Ethiopia, and the rhythmic sounds of Nyabinghi drums begin to pick up tempo to commence the celebration of Genna.

The second oldest Christian nation in the world, apart from Egypt, where Christianity began, Ethiopia still follows and acknowledges the ancient Julian calendar, whereby Christmas falls on January 7, while the Gregorian calendar celebrates Christmas on December 25 recognised by the majority of the world. The Ethiopian name given to Christmas is Ledet or Genna (also spelt as Ganna), which is also conceded worldwide by Rastafarians who view Ethiopia as their spiritual homeland and a place to which they want to return. The name comes from the word Gennana, meaning "imminent" to express the coming of the Lord and the freeing of mankind from sin.

The eve before Genna, Ethiopians fast all day. However, some believers commenced their fasting 40 days before, leading up to Christmas. This pensive fasting period is known as the fast of the prophets or Tsoma Nebiat. The fast of Advent is carried out to cleanse the body and soul in preparation for the day of the birth of Christ.

In Ethiopia, the day before Christmas, thousands of pilgrims flock to Lalibela from all parts of the country and globe to prepare for Genna's thanksgiving celebration, which simultaneously falls on the anniversary of the birthday of the former ancient King Lalibela. One of the most famous kings of Africa, he is believed to have received instructions from God to carve, from rock, the famous 11 mystical churches that bear the soul of Ethiopia's religious heritage. The churches are seen as one of the world's most incredible man-made creations and are said to be a lasting monument to man's faith in God.


All-night praying


Throughout Christmas Eve, pilgrims commemorate outdoors all night praying and chanting. However, for those living in the diaspora such as Jamaica, believers attend an Ethiopian Orthodox church to acknowledge this auspicious occasion and practise their traditional custom in honouring the birth of their saviour. Among the congregation, both in Ethiopia and the diaspora, are Rastafarians who align themselves with the doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. They will also attend church to give thanks and praise for the birth of Christ, albeit not all Rastas believe in Christ as their saviour due to many divisions within Rastafarianism.

Churchgoers traditionally attend mass dressed in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma, a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly coloured stripes across the ends. The shamma is worn similarly to a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. Rastafarians will also wear white decorated with their famous colours red, gold, and green, which are also part of Ethiopia's national flag and that of other African nations. The festive sermon is one of joy, giving, and sharing extending beyond religious beliefs and spreads the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind throughout the world.

On Genna morning, the males traditionally play a hockey-like ball game, which is also called Genna. According to legend, when shepherds heard of the birth of Christ, they rejoiced and started playing the game with their sticks and until this day in Ethiopia many play the traditional sport with great enthusiasm. After this energetic match ends, celebrants attend church once again and are handed a candle as they enter. After lighting the candle everyone walks around the church three times. Then they gather in the second circle to stand throughout the long mass, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The centre circle is the holiest space in the church, where the priest serves Holy Communion

Everyone stands throughout the worship service for up to three hours. The clergy and Debtera (scholars versed in the liturgy and music of the church) lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has been for more than 1,500 years since Ethiopia accepted Christianity. In Ethiopia, this ancient rite culminates in the spectacular procession of the Tabot (the Tabot is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant and carried on top of a priest's head). The procession makes its way three times around the church amid ululation (making wailing sounds), chiming church bells, dazzling umbrellas, colourful attire of the clergy and Debteras including a throng of Christians who follow the procession with lighted candles.

After service, everybody goes home to break their fast. Food and drink are plentiful, with many homes preparing the special meals characteristic of all big festivities highlighted on the Ethiopian calendar. Most celebrants indulge in doro wat and injera which are as traditionally a part of the Christmas dinner in Ethiopia as turkey and stuffing are in the United Kingdom or the United States. Doro wat is a thick, spicy stew of meat, vegetables, and sometimes eggs. The wat is served from a beautifully decorated watertight basket on to a 'plate' of injera, which is flat sourdough bread. Pieces of injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat. Often, tej, a traditional wine-like drink made from honey, accompanies the feast.


Quiet Genna


Contrary to the stressful hustle and bustle of Christmas celebrated in the West, Genna is quietly shared and enjoyed in groups of close friends and family. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas festivities among Ethiopians, however, small presents are exchanged with the main focus on the children who eagerly anticipate a new outfit, which they wear with pride on Christmas Day. With the family uniting and close friends joining in the fun, the festive mood continues until the late hours of the evening.

Twelve days after Genna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups to which they belong. The grown-ups wear the shamma. The priests will then wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas. The music of Ethiopian instruments makes the procession a very festive event. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks. A long, T-shaped prayer stick called a makamiya taps out the walking beat and also serves as a support for the priest during the long church service which follows.